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Is Christianity too Rigid?

By Nick Brzozowski

Back in the 1500s, a Catholic monk didn’t believe that the church should be accepting indulgences (money to get their loved ones into heaven). So, he made a big fuss about it and had several death threats on his head.

Years later, a group of Anabaptists believed that infants shouldn’t be baptized, but only people who have made an intelligent decision to trust in Jesus. Because of their beliefs, they faced torture, including being boiled in oil.

Beliefs are dangerous.

I meet other millennials who have grown up in church, but have shifted their beliefs about life and God and politics. Because of that, there has been a strain on their relationship with their parents.

For the last several decades, denominations have been dividing because of different beliefs when it comes to the LGBTQIA+ community. Today, there are still others, including the United Methodists who are debating and getting heated over differing opinions.

Beliefs are divisive.

Not only have strongly held beliefs put people in danger and caused division, but they have also contributed to great, soul-wrenching doubt. People confronted with challenges to some of their beliefs, see their entire faith collapsing in on itself, like a house of cards.

There’s been a movement of Christians who have seen the consequences of dogmatism. And in response, they have reframed Christianity as a faith of action, not necessarily of beliefs. Following Jesus is more about showing kindness than believing in a literal six days of creation.

“Faith was about love all along. We just didn’t realize it, and it took doubt to help us see it.” - Brian McLaren

Is Christianity ultimately about what we do or what we believe?

For some, this question comes down to whether you read more Jesus in the New Testament or more Paul. Jesus seemed to talk about ethics more than doctrines. He tells us to be generous to the poor, to love your enemy and to stay faithful to your spouse.

While Paul definitely has some things to say about our behavior, he is usually grounding it in some cosmic reality.

  • Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Romans 12:1.

  • For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form…Therefore do not let anyone judge you… Colossians 2:9-16

  • The book of Ephesians can be somewhat nicely split down the middle with the first half about beliefs and the second about behavior.

But, it is not like the gospels (the 4 books about Jesus' life on earth) have nothing to contribute to our doctrine. The book of John is enormously significant in forming a doctrine of the Trinity and the person of Jesus Christ. Here, we see that Jesus is God (John 1:1-2) and that life is exclusively through Jesus (John 14:6; 15).

My point is that you can not severe beliefs from behavior — at least, not in Christianity. We love because we believe in a God of love, who commands us to love, empowers us to love, and clarifies what love really is.

Popular Atheist author and speaker, Sam Harris agrees. He argues that our beliefs have a tremendous impact on our actions. In his book, The End of Faith, he has you imagine being told that you won one million dollars. If you really believed that, you would do something about it. Now, imagine you believed that you only had two weeks to live. You would be foolish to go on like nothing is happening! And if you truly believe that anyone who does not become a Christian will spend eternity in torment, you would be cruel not to invite people to be Christians.

You simply cannot make Christianity devoid of beliefs. In fact, the Greek word (the language the New Testament was written in) for belief, is the same for faith and trust. To have faith is to trust in Jesus, which means that you have to believe something about Jesus — at the very least, that he is trustworthy!

But, following Jesus does not need to be dogmatic, divisive, dangerous or necessarily overwhelm you with doubt.

Here are two approaches that will help you better follow Jesus without some of the same landmines.

Find Your Bullseye Beliefs

Not all beliefs are created equally. Your belief in gravity is going to serve you much better than your belief that there are more wheels in the world than doors.

So, the key is to choose which beliefs you are going to give the most priority to. Which are the ones that you will let shape you?

A helpful way to divide you beliefs is in three categories:

  1. Devote Beliefs. If you were looking at a target, these would be at the center, the bullseye beliefs. These are the ones that make you who you are.

  2. Defend Beliefs. These are important and do shape your behavior. They are just not as critical as the devote beliefs. At Anchor, we want to create a culture of growth where we learn from people with different perspectives. That means we love it when people see topics like LGBTQIA+, racism, abortion, and politics differently. It gives us opportunities to learn and grow from one another.

  3. Discuss Beliefs. These could be interesting, but do not carry very much weight. As it relates to faith and the Bible, there are an endless number of discuss beliefs: Did Jesus clear the Temple once or twice? What were the exact conditions of the flood? Was Job a real historic figure or was his story a parable?

Now, these categories will relate to one another. If one of your devote beliefs is "God created people in his image and everyone matters to God," then that will influence defend beliefs on racism for example. Also, theologians tend to build defend beliefs from discuss beliefs. For example, a church that believes that women should be encouraged to be pastors will most likely have dozens of smaller beliefs about particular texts and individuals in the Bible that build their case. One interpretation of a verse won't warrant being a defend belief, but could contribute to one.

Here are Anchor’s core (devote, bullseye) beliefs:

Beliefs About God

  • God is the Creator and Ruler of the universe.

  • Jesus is the Son of God.

  • The Holy Spirit lives in everyone when they trust in Jesus for salvation.

Beliefs About People

  • God created people in his image and everyone matters to God.

  • All people have sinned and need God’s forgiveness.

  • Everyone who trusts in Jesus alone has eternal life.

Beliefs About The Church, The Bible, and The End

  • The Bible is God's Word to us.

  • Jesus is head of the Church.

  • People will exist eternally with or without God.

Now, this list begs the question — what led to us choosing this list opposed to another list? There are three factors that contribute to this selection — beliefs that are: common, clear, and critical. Common — are these beliefs shared by lots of other churches and Christians throughout history? Clear — how much ambiguity is there about this topic in the Bible? Critical — how much weight does this concept carry for our life and faith?

Embrace a Centered Discipleship

The second approach to avoid the belief-landmines while still taking steps in your faith requires taking on a new mindset toward discipleship.

By discipleship, I mean helping people follow Jesus. We get this word from the Greek for disciple, which means learner. Jesus called his first followers disciples and we are considered disciples, who follow Jesus today.

For my first several years in ministry, I had a bounded approach to discipleship. There were about a couple dozen, loosely defined characteristics that made for a good Christian. They had to remain pure, go to church regularly, not hang out too regularly with "bad" people, etc. At some point, people seemed to cross the line as insiders. And that was the goal for everyone — to make them an insider.

But, a couple years ago, I learned about the centered model for discipleship. In this model, you still want people to do things like go to church and believe in Jesus. But, you focus less of checking all the boxes and more on helping a person take their next steps.

At first, the difference between the two seems very subtle, but over time, this one shift has become revolutionary in my life and ministry. A centered approach is far more optimistic. I can celebrate every little step in a person’s life, instead of being disappointed that they haven’t “made it” yet. Also, a centered approach leads to a far more open and accepting community. We appreciate our differences and don’t try to categorize people as in or out right away. It also helps us become laser focused on Jesus, not necessarily our particular version of Christianity.

Reflections Questions

  • What are some “discuss” beliefs that you have (Taylor Swift is the greatest song writer of our generation)? “Defend” beliefs (Everyone should salt their sidewalk)? “Devote” beliefs (It matters the way we treat people)?

  • Take a look at Anchor’s core beliefs. Which one do you believe the strongest? Which one do you disagree with? Which one is not clear to you?

  • What did you think of the discipleship model (bounded vs. centered)? Do you see the difference? How can a centered model be helpful for you and people you may be seeking to help follow Jesus?

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